Saturday 24 February 2018

How do you start to solve a problem like Assad’s Syria?

Rachel Lavin asks if a middle ground for Assad, world leaders on climate change and Trump supporters can be found

Syrian rebel fighters stare cautiously out of their bus window as hundreds were evacuated under ceasefire from the last rebel-held district
Syrian rebel fighters stare cautiously out of their bus window as hundreds were evacuated under ceasefire from the last rebel-held district

Rachel Lavin

Midweek, our TV screens presented the rare sight of a ceasefire in the Syrian city of Homs as hundreds of rebel fighters and their families nervously clutched weapons and peeked warily from behind curtains as they were bussed out of the last rebel-held area in "the capital of the revolution".

This was part of a local deal negotiated between the opposition and the government. The pro-rebel population could escape to rebel-held areas while the government could regain control of the city. Could this peaceful compromise be a sign of more to come?

Diplomatic talks agreed last month in Vienna and reinforced last week by rebel groups meeting in Saudi Arabia set out an ambitious new plan to bring the conflict to an end and chart a way forward for Syria, beginning at the start of next year. Reports say a new "inclusive, and non-sectarian governance" is expected within six months, with elections planned after 18 months, in which all Syrians, including refugees outside the country, will be able to vote.

At the talks in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Thursday, 100 representatives of armed and political Syrian rebel groups agreed to unite behind a single body and a statement of principles that will form the basis for peace negotiations with the Syrian government next year.

Re-establishing a Syrian state in compromise with the regime is not ideal, especially when under Bashar al-Assad's rule an estimated 250,000 have died during the civil war. But establishing a stable state in Syria is essential not only to ending the conflict, but to fighting Isil and preventing worse powers, such as the jihadist extremist group the al-Nusra Front, taking over in the power vacuum that is created once Isil is pushed back.

It may also be the only peaceful way to get rid of the brutal but unrelenting Assad. He's in a weak position now, and it is expected that Western leaders could pressure him to "transition" out of power. However, Russia and Iran, who back Assad, may prove a barrier to that. US Secretary of State John Kerry will certainly have his work cut out for him when negotiations begin.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, women could vote and stand for municipal election for the first time yesterday in the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. While Saudi women have a long way to go towards equality, it is certainly a triumph for women's liberation in this Islamic nation.

Meanwhile, as progress was slowly being made in the Middle East, America - the self-declared pinnacle of Western freedom - showed more regression than progress through none other than Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

On Monday, Trump announced his plan for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on".

In his vague conflation of Muslims and extremist Islamists, Trump is doing what Trump does best - feeding off the fears and ignorance of Middle America.

While initially we laughed at his outrageous, arrogant behaviour, we chuckled a little less when he made derogatory comments towards women. When he talked about building a wall to keep Mexicans out, our laughter quickly turned to disbelieving smirks. But now that he's blaming all of the Muslim community for terrorism - a tired prejudice that most people in the West can see through, especially when it plays into Isil's desires - the amusement with Trump needs to stop: no comedy specials, no poppy jazz music in the news reports, no more "guess what Trump did today?" segments. As Hillary Clinton said on Thursday: "I no longer think he's funny. He has gone way over the line. What he's saying now is not only shameful and wrong, it's dangerous."

It's especially dangerous now that he wants to take his road show to Israel, which along with his most recent anti-Muslim sentiments is exactly not the representation of the West we need in the fragile Middle East right now.

But how do we deal with such a demagogue? In the UK, a petition was signed by 500,000 people who want to "ban" Trump from visiting. Because it gained the required number of signatures (more than 100,000), UK politicians will now have to debate the motion in parliament.

Banning Trump from airing his views is the exact approach that led to his rise in the first place.

Trump is the symptom, not the cause, of an increasingly polarised America, all aided by an absence of middle ground in the media and the political arena. What we didn't realise was that while we saw him as the village idiot in one echo chamber, he has become the prized preacher in another. He is the product of a right-wing faction whose ignorant views became hardened when alienated by political discourse. Rather than engaging, challenging and detangling these views as they present themselves, when it comes to political discourse, the progressive left, aided by social media, tend to engage in a culture of shaming and outrage in the name of what is "politically correct" (a phrase that implies there is one universal understanding of what is righteous).

Fringe right-wing views have been ostracised from the public landscape but not resolved, and now in pockets of Middle America they are emerging en masse at rallies for Trump.

Exiling Trump is not the solution to this problem, it only aids the cause. Serious engagement and open critical discourse is the only way to tackle the Trump phenomenon.

One sign of constructive compromise and engagement last week was the historic achievement of the climate change talks that concluded yesterday in Paris.

As negotiators struggled, still locked in debate on Thursday night, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius encouraged world leaders to compromise with the hopeful words: "We must do this and we can do this… I think, dear friends, that we will make it."

Sunday Independent

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